Ethnography: Inclusion of Chinese Americans into American Communities

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

While my research last week focused on the second-generation Chinese-American experience, this week I spoke with two women who immigrated to American as adults: Mei-ting*, who arrived in America in 1987 with only two hundred dollars to her name and is now a suburban housewife in North Florida; and Yvonne*, who came to the U.S to study at Duke and is considering staying when she finishes education.

Mei-ting came to the United States with her husband so he could pursue a graduate degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo. While at Buffalo, Mei-ting took up a job at a Chinese restaurant, giving her a chance to interact with the Buffalo community outside the university. She describes the community as not being extremely diverse, with a white majority, a large black minority, but very little representation of the other races. “This was only a short while after China opened its doors for the first time since the Communists took control,” she told me in her native Shanghainese dialect, “so we were the first Chinese people the city had seem in a long time.” As such, she often felt excluded by the other people in the city. “They would never do anything that was blatantly racist; that’s only something children would do. With adults, it’s much more subtle. They would be polite to your face and bite their tongue. But when I was working at the restaurant, patrons I didn’t even know would give me these condescending looks when speaking to me. The entire vibe I would get from them would feel wrong. I think they were judging me for being Chinese or not speaking English well enough. It made it clear to me that I was different.”

Once her husband finished his degree, the couple relocated to Monmouth County, New Jersey. Their new home was much more racially diverse, and had a larger population of Chinese Americans. Gone were the disapproving glares and uncomfortable conversations. Of all the places where she lived in the U.S, this is where Mei-ting felt the most welcome.

After a few years in New Jersey, the family moved again to North Florida, where her husband became a professor. His new career allowed the family to settle into an upper-middle class community. However, this community was almost exclusively white and homogenous, and most families had lived in the area for generations. The whole family immediately felt like outsiders. Mei-ting was never able to make friends outside a few other Chinese families who lived nearby. “We came from different backgrounds,” she says about the other members of her community. “It made it hard for us to find common ground. They could feel the differences as much as I could, and so they never made an effort to include me. They would be polite to me, and I would be polite to them, but we would never really get to know each other.”

Yvonne is a newcomer to America, arriving at Duke from Beijing only a year ago. Duke University is a melting pot of students from various backgrounds parts of the country, allowing Yvonne the unique chance to simultaneously observe the disparity in how people from different communities behave towards new Chinese immigrants. She describes the treatment received from American students as ranging from respectful and tolerant to condescending and insulting. The most understanding and accepting students were usually other Chinese-Americans, who were themselves subject to discrimination and intolerance growing up, or those who were raised, in her own words, “in places in New York City or Los Angeles; larger, diverse cities where they were already exposed to Chinese culture.” These students were more likely to show an interest in and ask respectfully inquisitive questions about China, and were more open-minded towards dissimilarities between Chinese and American culture.  The students who were offensive and unwelcoming she describes as being from “these all-white rural places where they’ve never seen a Chinese person.” Yvonne has often been subject to condescending glares and vibes from such students, similar to those described by Mei-ting. The same students are more also more likely to ask offensively ignorant questions about Chinese culture, as well as react to her Chinese food and beverages with wrinkles noses and exclamations of disgust. She believes that since these students were not exposed to diversity growing up, they were more likely to be judgmental towards those unlike them.

Next week, I will start analyzing my data to form definite conclusions. I still have one more interview to conduct, and will also conduct any follow-up interviews with the other interviewees if needed.

*Names have been changed


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